Old Testament

'Black Money' and Old Testament laws

Hi Dojo readers,

As many of you know, over the past half-decade or so, I have spent time teaching leadership and Biblical interpretation seminars for Pastors in India. (You can see a few pics from my last trip, as well as some of the reasons we as a teaching team specifically go to that part of the country each year over on Talbot Davis’ blog ). My last trip was different than any previous visit however.

You see, the day we landed in Delhi (or night…I can’t even remember because my mind loses all ability to track time across so many time zones for 30 hours with no sleep!) we went over to the currency exchange counter to exchange our U.S. dollars for Indian rupees, as usual. I handed the man around $200 USD and received a fairly thick stack of R500 notes in return. For those who don’t know, they look like this:


So far, so good. We took our currency, proceeded through customs, and prepared for our final flight from Delhi to Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of Odisha/Orissa state.

After arriving safely in Bhubaneshwar, we went to our good friends’ house for dinner (which, thanks to Anju’s cooking skills, was amazing as always!). While we were eating, P.R. got a call and turned on the television. We watched as the Indian news channels were going nuts with a breaking announcement: As of midnight that night, all R500 and R1000 currency notes would no longer be legal tender!

It was a surprise announcement by Prime Minister Modi’s office and the country was completely blindsided! All Indian banks would be closed the following day for 24 hours, and every Indian (over a billion of them!) would be required to either deposit or exchange their old notes for new ones within the next 15 days. As of midnight, however, no businesses would be able to legally accept the old notes as payment for any goods or services. Only airports, hospitals, train stations, and a few other essential industries would be allowed to accept the old notes during the 15 day period of transition.

We were quite alarmed. The conferences we were there to speak at were being paid for largely (we had planned) using the old notes, and none of us had the new notes. Furthermore, since government ID was required to exchange the old notes at a bank, and we were foreigners, we did not know if we’d be able to get ours exchanged at all. It was somewhat tense that evening as P.R. and the Conference organizers scrambled to figure out what we would do.

All we knew was that a law had been given from on high that just didn’t make any sense to us cash-using Americans, particularly as foreigners in a foreign land! It seemed that Prime Minister Modi (who has not always been the best friend of Christians or other religious minorities, by the way) was opposed to cash or just trying to make life hard on his people across that massive land for no good reason.


As we watched the news and asked questions about the situation to our hosts, we soon discovered the reason for the Prime Minister’s unexpected executive decision. You see, India has had problems with massive corruption as well as terrorist groups, both of which operate largely through the use of what they call “Black Money.” Black Money is what we in America would call “under the table” money. Cash that is used without any paper trail or government knowledge. Large amounts of cash flow throughout the Indian economy and it is common for illegal or unethical deals to be done through the use of Black Money. Terrorist organizations fund terror through large cash amounts, primarily in the country’s two largest denominations: R500 and R1000 notes. Businesses make corrupt, illegal, and untraceable deals worth fortunes using Black Money transactions. People report financial transactions at a certain rate, but then supplement them with large sums of unaccounted Black Money…thus avoiding paper trails, and taxes.

So, in an effort to fight this major problem in India, the government had new R2000 notes printed in secret and then made a surprise announcement that the old R500 and R1000 notes were now worthless as legal tender. The purpose of this move (whether it will turn out to have been a good idea or not remains to be seen!) was not simply to make Indians’ life miserable. Nor was it because the Prime Minister has a personal grudge against cash notes. Rather, it was to force the entire country to legally account for, deposit, and/or exchange all of their cash reserves so that Black Money would effectively be useless if not legally declared and accounted for…and of course taxed eventually!

So our entire trip was affected by this decision…because the entire country was affected by it. Here is what ATM lines looked like everywhere after the announcement was made, for those who may wonder what the big deal is. I took this pic in the Delhi airport on our way home:


Okay...but, you may be asking, what does any of this have to do with the Old Testament? Well…quite a lot, actually.

You see, when we read the Old Testament, particularly the Old Testament laws found in Torah (the first five books of the Bible), we find ourselves in a position similar to how the team felt as we watched the news that night around the table. We are confused, disoriented, and don’t often know what to make of such seemingly arbitrary or arcane demands by Israel’s lawgiver, God. And based upon our disposition toward this God we read about, we either give Him the benefit of the doubt concerning the laws of His we don’t understand, or we condemn Him as a barbaric, maniacal, bloodthirsty, genocidal, arbitrary demagogue created by ignorant desert-dwellers in order to keep people in bondage to fear and therefore in line with the ruling class of priests.

Yet, as with the case of Indian Black Money, knowing the background to the various laws found in the Old Testament can often shed tremendous light on them and the reasoning behind them. Once we put ourselves back into the world of 2nd millennium Israel encamped around the base of Mt. Sinai or on the plains of Moab, we start to see that the laws God gave his people have a remarkable concern overall for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. They elevated people above property, and began to introduce a redemptive trajectory that, while temporary and only in effect so long as the Sinai Covenant remained in effect, would find their greater fulfillment in the life, death, resurrection, and Gospel ethic of the Messiah…and their ultimate culmination in the New Heavens and New Earth which the Prophets and Jesus Himself pointed us toward. Even the seeming bizarre food laws take on new meaning when put into the overall context of the Covenant at Sinai. [For more examples of this principle on a weekly basis, be sure to subscribe and listen to the Disciple Dojo podcast or follow along on our YouTube channel as we journey through the books of Torah together on a weekly basis.]

So next time you come across a law or commandment in the Old Testament, think about our initial confusion over our newly-illegal stack of rupee notes and then look for that piece of background context which might shed a little more light on the subject. If you are looking for a good place to start, I cannot recommend strongly enough THIS resource by who I consider the greatest living OT scholar on the planet, personally.

Blessings from the Dojo,


Why does God hate shrimp?? (Understanding OT food laws)

Seriously...why does God hate porkchops or bacon-wrapped shrimp??

Can any food really be an "abomination"??

Why does the Bible say that bats are birds, when they are clearly mammals??

Why does the Bible teach that rabbits "chew the cud" when they are not ruminants and thus do not even have compartmentalized stomachs that produce cud to be chewed??

When Jesus and Paul declared that food was not "unclean", were they abolishing God's Word??

Christians don't follow OT dietary laws...so why do we care about following the other laws in the OT that we pick and choose to follow??

Why does God even care what people eat to begin with???

These are just a few of the questions people have when they first encounter the Biblical dietary laws of Leviticus 11 (and Deuteronomy 14). So it's important at the outset that we orient ourselves properly and understand these laws first in their original cultural context, and then through the lens of the later Prophets and ultimately through the Gospel of Israel's Messiah proclaimed in the New Testament...

[ps: If you enjoyed this teaching, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel or podcast! It really helps us when you do!]

For further study on the food laws of the Old Testament see the following resources:

Biblical thoughts on the Death Penatly debate

A few years ago during Presidential campaign season, two issues arose at around the same time which really got me thinking about the issue of Capital Punishment in our society, and more particularly, how Disciples of Jesus should view it.

The first was the rousing ovation that Texas Governor Rick Perry received during the Republican Primary debate after stating that he had ZERO reservations about the hundreds of people executed during his tenure as Governor (which I found very disturbing). The second was the controversy surrounding Troy Davis, who was executed in my birth-state of Georgia not long after. The controversy had arisen as a result not only of multiple witnesses changing their testimony, but also there being no actual physical evidence of Davis’ guilt.

In both instances, as well as countless others like them throughout our country's history, Christians have been divided on the issue--some praising capital punishment as the God-ordained right of a government to punish those guilty of the most heinous crime with ultimate temporal justice, and others pointing to Jesus’ own teachings on the need to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you” as in essence overturning the whole concept of capital punishment entirely in the age of the New Covenant. Who is right? Is there a consistent Biblical view when it comes to capital punishment? Or is the follower of Jesus left to simply pick their favorite proof-texts based on their political and/or emotional makeup?

I confess, Dojo readers, that I find myself somewhere in the middle on this issue.

Firstly, I do not believe that Jesus ANYWHERE overturned ANY spiritual truth contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”, as most Christians refer to it). Jesus came to FULFILL Torah, but not by ABOLISHING it:

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mat 5:17 NRSV)

So the Christian must take VERY seriously the purposes and teachings of the Hebrew Bible, even though as a Covenant it was completed by Jesus at His death and Resurrection. With Pentacost, the Mosaic Covenant ceased to be binding on God’s people as it came to its God-ordained completion and the New Covenant, marked by the giving of the Holy Spirit upon all God’s people, was inaugurated:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
(Jer 31:31-33 NRSV)

Peter himself declares this to be the case in Acts 2, and the entire New Testament (which literally means “New Covenant”) is testimony to the fact that we live no under the Covenant of Sinai, but under the Covenant of Golgotha.

[For more on this basic fact of Christian theology, see my video: “Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments?” which can be viewed HERE.]

However, everywhere in the New Testament, the Apostles and even Jesus Himself appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures as reflecting the nature and character of God, and cite it authoritatively even to those who were never under its Covenant (i.e. Romans, Galatians, etc.). The message is clear: We learn of God’s nature primarily through His self-revelation to His people in Scripture…and for the earliest Christians, that Scripture consisted only of the Old Testament.

Therefore, contrary to some claims by anti-death-penalty Christians, it is not callousness, bloodlust, or hatred that leads pro-death-penalty Christians to uphold capital punishment. Often, it stems from a desire to take God’s self-revelation through His Scriptures very seriously (without, as the common charge goes, taking it completely literally).

Jesus Himself upheld the nature of God and His Word to His people through upholding the Old Testament during His life. In fact, Jesus’ teachings pushed past the outward, surfacey, lip-service adherence to Torah that many of his contemporaries had adopted and called Israel back to observing the HEART of the Old Testament’s teachings. Jesus rightly recognized that the Spirit who Inspired the Old Testament was the same Spirit who was soon to be poured out on the New Covenant Israel–both Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus as Messiah–and He was preparing His people to live out the intention of Torah by placing it, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Joel had foretold, in their hearts and minds rather than on tablets of stone kept in a sanctuary ark.

Thus, nowhere do we find Jesus repudiating the Old Testament concept of the death penalty.

The most common passage used to argue that Jesus overturned the death penalty is John 8’s account of the woman caught in adultery, as popular Christian author/speaker Shane Claiborne recently did. However, there are a number of reasons NOT to see this as such:

First of all, and most importantly, the entire episode was NOT originally part of the Gospel of John. This always comes as a surprise, and to many a shock, when I teach on it in "Bible for the Rest of Us" [Coming Soon!!]. But go ahead, read the footnote in your Bible regarding John 7:53-8:11 for yourself. Even conservative and Evangelical scholars readily recognize that this passage is not part of the Gospel. For instance, the translator note on this passage in the NET Bible alerts the reader to this fact:

“This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel.”

So it is not legitimate theologically to build a doctrine based largely upon a passage of Scripture that is not, in fact, a passage of Scripture.

Secondly, even if John 8’s account of Jesus rescuing a condemned adulteress from the death penalty WERE Scripture, it still does not overturn the death penalty under Torah…precisely because the entire “trial” of the woman was a blatant violation of Torah itself! Here’s why:

1) According to Torah, in order for adultery to be punished, BOTH parties had to be present and on trial (Lev. 20:10)…yet in John 8, only the woman in brought to Jesus. There is no mention of the man whatsoever.

2) According to Torah, capital cases had to be tried by an official Judge of Israel (Deut. 25:1). This was a mob of religious laypersons bringing an accused person before an itinerant prophet/teacher. Nothing under Torah would allow such a “trial” to be valid.

3) Under Torah, a person could not be put to death except on the EYEWITNESS testimony of AT LEAST TWO WITNESSES (Num. 35:30, Deut. 17:6). Furthermore, witnesses in capital cases were liable to be punished with the same penalty the accused was being tried for if they were found to be lying. This is what the Commandment “You shall not bear false witness” actually means (rather than a blanket prohibition on lying in general). And under Torah, such eyewitnesses were to take an active part in administering the death penalty by ceremonially casting the first stone (Deut. 17:7). The fact that in this story all of the accuser dropped their stones and walked away shows that none of them bothered to press Jesus on the issue because none of them were in fact willing to stake their life on upholding Torah law.

However, I must again stress the fact that this entire account is NOT part of Scripture, and therefore we cannot read into it much detail either way.

The other line of argument Christians who oppose the death penalty often take is to quote Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
(Mat 5:38-41 NRSV)

This is argued as clear proof that Jesus overturned the “eye for an eye” law of Torah (Exod. 21:23-24; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut.19:21). However, this is not an iron-clad prooftext by any means. Why not? Because Jesus is speaking about PERSONAL reaction to PERSONAL provocation or oppression by others. He is not speaking about the role of Israel’s government in administering Torah; He is speaking to Jews who are living under Roman occupation and suffer daily harassment and provocation, which leads to in-fighting, a vengeance mindset and all personal/family pride within an honor-and-shame society such as 1st century Palestine in fact was. At that time (and throughout history!) people would justify using all manner of retaliation against their enemies by appealing to the Lex Talionis (Law of retaliation, i.e. “eye for eye”) found in Torah…totally ignoring the fact that Torah’s “eye for eye” law was put there to LIMIT retaliation and CURB acts of vengeance. In the rest of the ancient Near East, it wasn’t “eye for eye”; it was “life for eye”! In other words, if you injure or insult me, I kill you and possibly your family!  In its original context, “eye for eye” was put in place to keep Israel from being a retaliatory, vengeance-based culture.

In fact, according to Torah, the primary purpose of the death penalty was prevention, not retaliation. Over and over we read that Israel was to use the death penalty (justly and never without 2 or more witnesses who staked their own lives on their testimony!) to demonstrate the seriousness of capital crimes, particularly premeditated murder (manslaughter did not carry a capital sentence) and to serve as a reminder that life is SO PRECIOUS that only God has the right to take it…and God authorized the government of Israel to act as His agent in carrying it out. And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul seems to imply (if not directly state!) that this is also a function God has granted even to pagan governments, so long as they are using it justly:

 “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them– taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
(Rom 13:3-8 NRSV)

This is why, according to Scripture, one cannot properly call capital punishment “murder.”  The word “murder” is never used to describe capital punishment in the Bible. Thus modern Christians who oppose the death penalty for whatever reason should not give in to the temptation to deem all capital punishment as “murder”, no matter how rhetorically effective it may seem.

In fact, many Christians who support the death penalty in theory do so PRECISELY BECAUSE they believe in the sanctity of life. They point back to Genesis, back before Torah was even given, before there were even such a people as the Israelites, before Abraham was ever born…to the time of Noah. God flat-out declared:

 “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.””
(Gen 9:5-7 NRSV)

This is the very first mention of capital punishment in all of Scripture…and it comes at God’s command as a sign of how sacred and valued all human life is to be seen as.

In theory, the death penalty is God’s idea.


I say all of this fully realizing that our society does not uphold the standards by which God originally intended capital punishment to be carried out. Torah ABHORS the idea of false witnesses, lack of eyewitness testimony, and corrupt or inept Judicial systems when it human life is on the line. God Himself takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”…yet all too often proponents of capital punishment seem to delight in it!

In our society you never hear of rich, famous, or powerful people receiving the death penalty. It is neither consistent or fair in how it is applied. Furthermore, it is “sanitized” so that it becomes nothing more than a “medical procedure” that is done behind closed doors. A “problem” is swept away out of sight of all except a handful of witnesses. This is a far cry from any Biblical concept of capital punishment as having the purpose of acting as a deterrent to a watching society. Capital punishment is a HORRIBLE thing. It is ALWAYS a tragedy. It is NEVER supposed to be cheap, clean, or emotionally-uninvested. I have a feeling if capital punishment (as well as abortion!) were witnessed by more people in society, it would have FAR fewer supporters.

As mentioned before, with the arrival of the New Covenant, things did change in many respects. Thus, I can recognize that Spirit-filled followers of Jesus could oppose capital punishment altogether, and I respect their position. I am somewhat persuaded by the argument that restoration and reconciliation are what we should strive for at all costs.

But unlike many opponents of the death penalty, I cannot outright entirely condemn a practice that God Himself instituted, both before and under the Covenant at Sinai, and I reject sloppy Biblical interpretations that pit Jesus against the Hebrew Scriptures He upheld until His death and saw Himself as bringing to fulfillment. Jesus is “the Word made flesh”…thus we do Him a severe disservice when we suggest that He offers a “more Godly” teaching than what God Himself set forth for His People under the prior Covenant. The Old Testament may contain things that we have a hard time reconciling as Godly and in harmony with the message of Jesus…but Jesus Himself never hinted at having such difficulties Himself. Thus, we must remain very humble in how we approach the Old Testament. It is every bit as Inspired as any New Testament teaching, even the stuff printed in red letters!

In short, I see the purpose–the Biblical and Godly purpose–of the death penalty in a society…but I do not see any society, especially our American one, that practices it in a way that measures up to its intended standards of justice. Therefore, I oppose it in practice under our current system. And until our system is completely reformed, the death penalty is not a valid option.

All other arguments based on logistics, economic concerns or victims’ rights, while they may be compelling in many respects, must take a back seat to the issue of justice for the accused when life and death are at stake.

In cases of the death penalty, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Yet as history has shown, sadly, we have gotten it wrong time and time again.

I welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section below. Feel free to share, discuss, challenge or critique me on this. As I said at the outset, I’m not completely settled on the issue. I’m merely voicing where I stand in light of what I find in Scripture and what I see in our society.


Groin-Grabbing Girls and Biblical Barbarism??

Hi Dojo readers,

Here is a question I received from a reader that many people have wondered about as they've read through the book of Deuteronomy:

Here's a tough one. What do you do with Deut 25: 11,12? How can chopping off a woman's hand ever be seen as a gracious gift, a shadow of the substance of Christ, or a moral response to the situation described? You would expect to read something like this in the Koran but I've read the Koran and I've never read anything there this brutal or sexist. I asked a Rabbi about this once and he couldn't come up with a good answer for me. And most Christian theologians I know are surprised when I show this verse to them. There are a few other verses like this in Deuteronomy that almost ruin the book for me. And I don't want them to. I'm not looking for "gotcha" verses. I just can't think of any situation where a woman deserves to be treated like this--particularly a woman who's intent is to protect her husband. And if this really is "the Word of God" it does indeed cause a problem for me in trying to reconcile this with the God revealed to me by Jesus in the gospels. This is a sincere question.

This is indeed, on the surface, a  groin-grabbingly bizarre passage (and yes, that was a Simpsons reference I just snuck in there!). So bizarre, in fact, that it even generated a video by an atheist group called "Hands Off."

Now that we've seen the strawman criticism of it, let's look at the actual passage in question, Deuteronomy 25:12, in three popular English translations:

When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her. (KJV)

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity. (NRSV)

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. (NIV)

In attempting to answer this reader's question I want to emphasize that the Bible is, first and foremost, an ancient literature library spanning nearly two millennia of writings by over 40 different authors on three different continents in three different languages throughout the rise and fall of many civilizations and kingdoms.

This is CRUCIAL for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to understand. Despite well-meaning claims we may have heard that since it's God's word, Scripture must be plain, clear, and easy for anyone to understand, that's simply NOT true. In fact, I'm constantly amazed at the lack of humility that is shown to the Biblical texts...and not by dismissive skeptics or antagonistic atheists; but rather, by Christians who are the most adamant about the Bible's divine Inspiration. Now don't get me wrong; I DO believe all Scripture is "God-breathed" (2Timothy 3:16-17) and thus divinely Inspired. I am thoroughly evangelical in this regard (though I believe any discussion of the Bible's authority and Inspiration MUST be nuanced carefully). But this does NOT mean that I believe all Scripture to be fully-understandable in all its detail and without legitimate difficulty or ambiguity in interpretation.

An honest apologist is one that admits the degree of difficulty some passages of Scripture impose upon modern readers who are FAR removed from the cultural and historical context in which they were given. And I believe this passage in Deuteronomy is a good example of the degree of caution needed when seeking to interpret the Bible. So, that being said, here is how I answered this reader's question "What do you do with Deuteronomy 25:11-12?"


The question is indeed a good one. However, there are a few things worth noting about that particular passage (and Torah law in general):

1. Torah law consisted primarily of "case law", rather than exhaustive legislation (this is a big difference between modern and ancient Near East laws). Judges were given an example and then expected to extrapolate wisely from them when rendering judgment.

2. Torah law, within the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East, was astonishingly protective of women, children and immigrants. (For a fuller exploration of this than can be covered in a blog post, see Christopher Wright's phenomenal work "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God")

and most importantly...

3. This passage in particular is not nearly as clear as some translations lead people to believe.

The Hebrew literally reads as follows:

כִּי־יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים יַחְדָּו אִישׁ וְאָחִיו
וְקָרְבָה אֵשֶׁת הָאֶחָד לְהַצִּיל אֶת־אִישָׁהּ מִיַּד  מַכֵּהוּ
וְשָׁלְחָה יָדָהּ וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בִּמְבֻשָׁיו׃
וְקַצֹּתָה אֶת־כַּפָּהּ לֹא תָחוֹס עֵינֶךָ׃

"If (men/husbands) are (quarreling/striving) together a man and his brother
and the (woman/wife) of one draws near to (snatch/deliver) her (man/husband) from the hand of the one (beating/smiting/striking down) him
and she stretches out her hand and (seizes/makes firm/strengthens) his genitals
then you will (cut off/trim) her (palm/hollow/basin).
She will not be pitied in your eyes."

[The various Hebrew terms in used in this passage can have different meanings. I’ve provide some of them in parentheses above just to show the degree of ambiguity and interpretive decision translators must make when rendering this passage into English.]

Firstly, given the material that comes just before this passage (see below), it is worth noting that the quarrel or fight being discussed is between brothers, rather than random strangers. Whatever is going on here, it is most likely a family affair.

Also, even more importantly, the word translated "hand" (kaph) in v.12 is not the normal word used for "hand" (yad) in v.11. It's the word for "palm" or "hollow space" that's used to denote a number of things ranging from the hollow of a sling to a wash basin to a door handle (which also functions euphemistically in the Song of Songs).

In short, the translation of this passage is unclear and there is much conjecture about its exact meaning, even among Biblical Hebrew scholars. So whatever you hear someone teach regarding this passage, you must always hold with loose hands. The more knowledgeable they are about Hebrew translation, the more tentative they should be when declaring any particular interpretation as the correct one. Conversely, the more dogmatic they are in teaching on this passage, the less likely it is that they have a firm grasp of the original language and ancient Near East laws in general.

However, I think we can note a few points that help us make some sense of what's going on in Deuteronomy 25:11-12. 

For starters, right before this passage we find a discussion of the concept of Levirate Marriage, whereby the family line of a childless man who dies is carried on by his brother. The emphasis is on the priority and utter importance of bearing children to continue one’s family name and thus their continuation of enjoyment of the blessing promise God made to Abraham of many offspring, which was ratified Mt. Sinai. Bearing a child to carry on the family name was of the utmost importance in ancient Israel. This is a major cultural difference between modern Western culture and that of the ancient Hebrews, but it cannot be emphasized enough.

Therefore it is very likely (I would say almost certain) that the law regarding a wife grabbing the manhood of her brother-in-law during a fight has to do with a potential threat to his ability to father children, as well as his ability to fully participate in Israel’s Covenant worship. You see, Torah specifically prohibited a man with a ‘damaged package’ from not only serving as a Priest (if he was from the tribe of Levi; Lev. 17:17-20), but also from entering into the assembly of the Lord (regardless of what tribe he was from; Deut. 23:1) due to ceremonial uncleanness. And the fact that this command is accompanied by the “show no pity” phrase—which is normally elsewhere reserved for the most severe attacks on Covenant faithfulness among the Israelites (i.e. murder, idolatry, etc.)—tells us that whatever is going on in this case law, it is more than just a woman trying to prevent violence or simply acting in a crass or distasteful manner.

One view that I've found intriguing is that of scholar Lyle Eslinger. He contends that "kaph" in this passage is a euphemism for female genitalia, and the law therefore involves a bit of a wordplay on the concept of "hand." It is an example of the concept of Lex Talionis (law of retaliation) which refers to the "eye for an eye" practice in Torah, whereby the punishment is to match--but not exceed!--the crime. If this is indeed the case, then this passage is stating that if a woman intentionally tries to damage a man's genitals with her hand (which would not only risk making him sterile and unable to produce offspring to carry on the family name, but would also risk rendering him unable to enter the Assembly of the Lord due to Deut. 23:1's prohibition), then the punishment is that her "hand" will suffer the result that she intended to inflict upon him--that is, the cutting off or disfiguring of her labia as punishment for attempted disfigurement of his penis/scrotum. (Depending on your mindset, I'm guessing some of you are either cringing or giggling...or both...as you read the words "labia", "penis" and "scrotum" in a blog on the Bible!) For more on this proposal, see:  L. Eslinger, “The Case of the Immodest Lady Wrestler in Deuteronomy XXV 11-12”, Vetum Testamentum 31/3, 1981, pp.269-281.

Similar, but less cringe-worthy than the above interpretation, is that of Jerome Walsh who suggests that “kaph” refers euphemistically, not to the actual female genitalia, but to the groin area as a whole and the verb for “cut off” is to be translated as “trimmed/shaved.” If this is the case, it would be suggesting that the punishment for publicly shaming a man by attempting to damage his reproductive organ (upon which the very sign of the Covenant, circumcision, was borne) would be the public shaming of the offending wife of his opponent by symbolically desecrating her reproductive organ. This is due to the fact that the shaving of hair in Israel was most often a sign of mourning, humiliation or punishment. Ancient Hebrews were about as far from metrosexual as one can get, and grooming of body hair was not a mark of beauty as it was in surrounding cultures like Egypt. Thus, the punishment would be a court-ordered Brazilian wax! For Walsh’s argument, see:  J. Walsh, “You Shall Cut Off Her ... Palm? A Re-Examination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12”, Journal of Semitic Studies 49/1, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced that either of these is what's going on in the passage. There are challenges to both views which raise some questions about their validity. But they are somewhat plausible and would fit into the category of Lex Talionis laws found elsewhere in Torah--and the purpose of Lex Talionis laws again was, ironically, to LIMIT the potential retributive violence against the accused. And in an honor-and-shame culture, attacking a man's genitals was symbolically (and literally, I guess!) an attack on his very manhood--and perhaps on his entire family's well-being.

Thus, even if it is the woman’s actual palm that was to be cut off (or perhaps cut/scarred), then it would still be an example of the Lex Talionis. In this case, as OT scholar Sandra Jacobs argues, it is a Talionis of Instrument—whereby the offending limb is what receives the punishment. Similar Middle Assyrian laws and have been documented and would provide a cultural legal analogue to Biblical law. [S. Jacobs, “Instrumental Talion in Deuteronomic Law”,  Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law, 16, 2010, pp.263-278]

If attacking the genitals of a man in the ancient world represented an assault on his procreative abilities, his standing in the community, his family name and his very manhood, then it is not hard to imagine that such an action would be met with vindictive violence by the man, his wife, or other family members in such an honor-and-shame culture...which would then potentially ignite a long-lasting blood-feud. This sounds very foreign to us, but in the world of the ancient Near East it would be unimaginable NOT to react in such a manner. Thus, by giving this example of case law in Deuteronomy, Moses is intending to LIMIT the retribution that can be enacted upon the woman, while at the same time recognizing and upholding the high value of sexuality, family, and Covenant which are all symbolized in various ways in the reproductive organs of men and women.

Of course we may find this utterly bizarre and even giggle-inducing (if you don’t believe me, try teaching it to a group of middle schoolers!) ...but this is a big reason why things like circumcision were established the way they were in the ancient world, and subsequently redefined and reinvested with new meaning by God among His Covenant People.

At the end of the day, this passage is admittedly unclear and perhaps bizarre to Christian readers two millennia removed from its original audience. And in modern societies where corporal punishment is a forgotten relic of the judicial past, it can indeed strike us as "cruel and unusual punishment." But it was one of the ways in which God entered into the culture of His people in their historical setting and chose to deal with them as a theocratic Covenant nation. Their purpose was to live among the pagan cultures surrounding them in such a way that God's distinctive relationship with them would draw watching gentiles back to Him. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise (or be seen as an obstacle to faith) that God would utilize certain forms of social and legal practices, albeit in a transformed or significantly-altered manner, in order to communicate to humanity throughout various stages of history. As for how Christians are to apply this passage today, that is a question that would be beyond the scope of this blog (though I discuss a basic approach in my video "Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments??").

However, it is important for those of us who claim to be Jesus' Disciples to remember that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is part of Torah, and according to Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews--despite taking into account the shift from Sinai to Golgotha; from Mosaic Covenant to Messianic Covenant--it remains God's Inspired Scripture for His people. We cannot "cut it off" from the pages of the Bible.


Blessings from the Dojo,